March 29, 2020
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'To Talk To Terrorists Is Like Frying Snowballs'

The Indian ambassador in Afghanistan on why his embassy or its staff didn't celebrate Diwali this year and what it means to stay back after the July 7 bombings

'To Talk To Terrorists Is Like Frying Snowballs'
'To Talk To Terrorists Is Like Frying Snowballs'

The year 2008 has been one of the most challenging for both Afghanistan as well as India's presence here. For one, the July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy killed five of its staff, including two diplomats, shocking the international community as well as the Afghans. Worse, the security situation continues to deteriorate here amidst talk of negotiating with the Taliban, rearming the tribal militia and increasing the presence of international troops. Simultaneously, pressure has been mounted on Pakistan to deal with the sanctuaries of terrorism on its soil.

The Indian embassy or its staff didn't celebrate Diwali to commiserate with their colleagues who lost their lives. On that day, however, Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad talked to Aunohita Mojumdar. Excerpts:

The Indian government has identified the ISI as the perpetrator or the brains behind the July 7 blasts. What's your assessment about how far Pakistan was complicit in it?

It's not for me to speculate on the details of this event which is still being investigated by concerned agencies here. Suffice it for me to underline what is publicly known: that there was complicity and support, on the basis of which we were alerted before the attack. We had specific warnings on June 23 and July 1 on the imminence of a terrorist strike on the Indian mission. Which is why we were able to take precautionary measures. Unfortunately, we lost five of our colleagues, but the number of Afghans who died in the area contiguous to the embassy was 54 and over 100 seriously injured. But for the protective measures we were able to take, the embassy might have come crashing down that morning. That protective measure was based on specific intelligence inputs from friendly governments.

What impact did the traumatic event have on you and your feelings about being here?

I have thought a great deal about that event and I'm ready to talk freely about the collective impact of this tragic incident on the members of this mission. It had an impact in general, and specifically it had a different impact. The general impact was to make us aware of the fragility of the situation here in Afghanistan and the fragility of life itself.

There was a more immediate impact caused by confronting the process of senseless killing of five of our dear colleagues. All of us were shaken initially because the event challenged our conventional assumptions about human behaviour. We came face to face with the human propensity for evil, death and destruction. But I'd say, paradoxically, the incident had an impact that was opposite to that intended by the perpetrator of the attack. They had sought to weaken our resolve and capacity to work in Afghanistan. Actually, the staff officers rallied around in a most admirable way. Not one official opted to return to India though the option was offered, since posts in the embassy and all consulates are volunteer posts in Afghanistan.

In fact one officer who had earlier sought to return to India for family reasons came to me soon after the incident and asked for a week's leave to go to India. He wanted to explain to his wife that he had decided to stay on in Kabul because he felt impelled to do so by the sacrifice of his colleagues and that he was staying for that reason and not staying away from his family for any other reasons. Mrs Malti Rao and Mrs Sunita Mehta took the remains of their (respective) husbands, Venkat Rao and Brig Mehta, back to India the same day in the evening in the special aircraft that the government had flown in for the purpose. They displayed exemplary courage and dignity. That too was inspiring for the officers and staff of the region.

The Indian government's reaction was that India remained fully committed to its assistance for rebuilding Afghanistan. One final element was the supportive reaction of the Afghan people and government. It provided us great psychological support. The governor of a province I had not met called to say India and Indians were sweating it out in Afghanistan for the development of this country and now that Indian diplomats and official had been killed in a terrorist attack, the bond of sweat had become a bond of blood. And I think this was the sentiment that sustained us. 

After every such incident, most of the international community hunkers down and indeed that very day most institutions were on high alert and most international personnel had their movement restricted. Did you consider closing down the embassy at any point? 

Well, everything was shattered in the mission and all the windows and doors had broken. Luckily there was no major structural damage. The consular wing, which was our public dealing wing, had completely come down. We couldn’t use the embassy building for two days, so we were functioning from the courtyard. But I must say that even the local people did not hunker down. The foreign minister, Dr (Rangir Dadfar) Spanta, was on the spot 20 minutes after the incident when he was told by the security there could be a follow-on attack and he was told not to come. But he was still there. The defence minister General (Rahim)Wardak was there soon thereafter at Brigadier Ravi Mehta’s residence together with the National Security Adviser. The French ambassador walked into the broken chancery soon after, showing great courage and completely disregarding his own security instructions. So I think there was tremendous solidarity. Members of parliament walked into the chancery that evening while the special team from India was still there. The deputy speaker of the Wolesi jirga walked across. He is a neighbour. So it was not as if we hunkered down because Indians don’t hunker down and terrorists incidents are not new to us so we have a normal way of dealing with the situation and I would say that there is nothing special about the officers and men of the Indian mission and that this is the way any other Indian mission would have reacted. 
How do you view the situation here today? The concept of building democracy in Afghanistan -- there are some things very different from the way we would build democracy. You have a Parliament without political parties, and now the concept of rearming the militias because you cannot build a national army very fast. Is this what is needed here now? Does this need a change of direction? 

We have a very well established of Indian diplomacy: we do not really believe that a democratic model can be exported to another environment. It is sui generis to societal structure and historical traditions of every society. It is really for the Afghan people to sit and decide as to what constitutional make up they should have and what kind of accommodations they should experiment with. After all, the Afghan Constitution was evolved through a process of the loya jirga and it is a fledgling democracy--it is very new. It has to develop the conventions and practices over a period of time. If you look at our own experiment -- the decentralisation to the third tier of government -- that came 50 years after our Constitution. So you’ll have to give this experiment more time.

There's a general assumption shared across the spectrum that the situation has become much worse than it was in previous years, that there has been progressive deterioration. Still, people have not lost hope. I feel there's a silver lining to the situation today. That there was an incremental deterioration in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and now you have a precipitate decline in security. There's a crisis now on our hands. But a crisis tends to concentrate the mind. There is a lot of churning, thinking and consultation and something good might come out of the process.

Can you define the special relationship between Afghanistan and India and how this has changed? 

There was a hiatus in the India-Afghanistan relationship which has been a strong relationship since independence. From the period 1979 onwards, we lost contact with the Afghan people though there were government to government relations. Then there was the period from 1992-96 when there was a gap -- the mujahideen were fighting amongst themselves -- and then the Taliban came between 1996 and 2001. So in the present context we are looking at end 2001 and beginning 2002.

The relationship between India and Afghanistan goes back to cultural and civilization ties but the essence of it today is to build a modern partnership. Our expectations of our involvement in Afghanistan are fairly simple and straightforward. We want the unity, integrity, stability and prosperity of Afghan people and Afghan society. There is absolutely a full consonance of interests between India and Afghanistan. 

You mentioned the period between 1996 and 2001. At that time also, India had close relations in trying to help the Afghan people counter the Taliban...

Yes, indeed. We were one of the few voices which wanted a more active support for those who had the vision of a democratic and pluralist Afghanistan and we did provide assistance to Commander Masood at that time and in that context links had not been broken off completely. But we were not able to be present in all parts of Afghanistan as we were earlier and as we are today. 

What is our view of the huge international presence here--both the military and non military?

The international presence here is based on successive annual UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and India is happy that countries involved here are working within the UN mandate. The only supplement is that this process has to be much more Afghan-led. This realisation is now there in the commitment to build the Afghan army and has to reflect itself in other domains.

Another supplement to the international engagement would be that a prerequisite for  success in Afghanistan is greater regional cooperation. Afghanistan as a landlocked country has always done well when it has served as a trade hub between central and south Asia and between Iran and South Asia. And now, of course, given the importance of energy, Afghanistan should ideally become a trade energy and transportation hub between two different parts of Asia. It would be a duty of all Afghanistan’s neighbours to be helpful and supportive in achieving this objective. 

How concerned are you about the stability of the region, especially what we have seen over the last one year? 

Let me not mince words to say that we are happy that Afghanistan and Pakistan are now engaged in some kind of revival of Track-II diplomacy. With the return of democracy in Pakistan, we hope it will have a good impact in tackling problems. Currently, a mini jirga is taking place between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These are positive signs in the sense that if the parameters under discussion are what were decided earlier, it might have a positive impact. The loya jirga itself in its major decision last year talked about not allowing sanctuaries and training centres for terrorists and that would be the key to resolving the problems being faced by Afghanistan.

Is there anything to indicate that Pakistan is changing its attitude?

This has to be tested against actual performance. Expression of intent, I'm afraid, is not going to be enough.h. 

There are some who think the relationship between India and Pakistan is intricately linked to that between Afghanistan and Pakistan and that movement on the Indo-Pak relationship is necessary for movement on Afghan-Pak relations.

Absolutely not. India does not view its relationship with any third country predicated on, or in reaction to, or refraction of its relationship to any other country.

Improvement in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Pakistan and India will have a positive resonance but that doesn't mean they are linked. We are conducting our own composite dialogue with Pakistan which came under a certain strain after the July 7 attack on the embassy. We are hoping that the conducive atmosphere for resuming our dialogue with Pakistan is in the process of being created. We have already engaged in a full dialogue with Pakistan across the spectrum for that reason.

The basic issue is we don't see how that (Indo-Pak relations) is related to the problem of dealing with insurgency in Afghanistan or how that's related to improvement in Pak-Afghan relations.

But Pakistan seems to think so.

Pakistan seems paranoid about our development activity here and we have, at different levels, tried to tell them about what we are doing here. Pakistan has a mission here and it must be reporting on what we are doing here. What we are doing is very transparent and open. We have modest-sized consulates overseeing development activity and we have a medium-sized embassy in Kabul. Most of my diplomatic colleagues here marvel at how we manage with so few people running a development assistance programme, the envelope of which is over a billion dollars today.

What are the implications of the talks that the Afghan government is initiating with the Taliban?

Our view is that it is unexceptionable for all governments to talk to all alienated individuals and groups. We do that too. But we have to be circumspect about the circumstances in which we talk and with whom we talk. Evidently, you cannot talk with anyone outside the pale. For instance, terrorists who believe in settling political issues with violence. Or with those who do not accept democracy and political pluralism. Or do not believe in human rights and fundamental freedoms and those that don't operate within constitutional bounds. If you do, then it is to accept that you can fry snowballs.

How is the Indian assistance different from that of others? 

Indian presence and Indian support are different from how other countries approach Afghanistan in many significant ways. We are present all over Afghanistan and we are in all major domains of activity: humanitarian assistance, infrastructure projects, small development projects with quick gestation and capacity building in government.  

We came in with humanitarian assistance which meant, for example, setting up camps for putting the Jaipur limb on disabled people, providing food assistance and  medical services. We set up five medical missions which still continue and we promised a million tonnes of foodgrain assistance which we unfortunately could not ship across to Afghanistan through Pakistan because of objections and then we decided to convert it into high protein biscuits.

The second part of our program includes the three major infrastructure projects -- the Nimroz project connecting Seistan province in Iran to the Kandahar-Herat highway, the Pul-e-Khumri transmission line and the Chimtala sub station which is part of a scheme we are working together with the World Bank and ADB to bring Uzbek electricity to Kabul which will be completed and handed over by end-November this year. The third big project in this sector is in the Western province of Herat where we are building the 42 mw Salma dam on the Hari Rud river.

The third element is something we introduced three years ago when Dr Manmohan Singh came here. He wanted us to think of inventive schemes where we had quick gestation projects, not executed by Indian agencies but by the local provinces. And in the social sector, setting up clinics and schools, even small irrigation works, electrification, micro hydel or putting in an array of solar cells for powering institutions. This is called the small development project program. We had 50 such projects -- typically less than $1 million each -- in all parts of Afghanistan, conceived and executed by local and provincial governance. This has been a great success. The first part of this program is over. In fact, the projects are spread all over Afghanistan and this is the second major aspect of our assistance that, unlike other donors who have their provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in particular areas, or who have concentrated in certain areas, we are located in terms of development assistance all over the entire territory of Afghanistan. We have projects in every part of Afghanistan from the solar power of a teacher’s training institute in Badakshan in the Northeast to a cold storage for fresh fruit in Kandahar in the South. We have in the South West this unique road construction project in Nimroz which has been completed and handed over. In the heart of Afghanistan, which is Kabul, we supplied Tata buses, we have set up the Sulabh shauchalaya (public conveniences) which are extremely popular and the Pul e Khumri transmission line to bring electricity to Kabul.

The fourth element of our aid, which I consider the most important, is to rebuild the state structure in Afghanistan and here let me say that we have the biggest state building program in Afghanistan compared to any other country and these are the biggest programs that India has for any third country. From both ends, it is a first. We offer 500 placements in our institutions under the ITEC program.

Another element is the 500 undergraduate and graduate scholarships that we are giving to Afghan nationals to study in India. Apart from this we have specially conceived programs for special people. Right now, in Kabul, we have two programs -- one of which is being run by SEWA to train 1000 war widows and destitute and orphans. They are being trained in four different types of occupations so that they can stand on their own feet.  Then the CII is executing another development program here to train 1000 Afghan youngsters in different trades like masonry, plumbing, machining electric work and women in industrial stitching and tailoring. 

If these programs are successful then they can be replicated in other parts of Afghanistan. Without spreading our personnel all over Afghanistan, because we have done these programmes smartly. The Afghan trainers in these programs have been trained by us and they are the ones who are imparting training. We are developing a local capacity for Afghans to train themselves. We have also conceived a system of capacity development within Afghan national institutions, especially the central ministries where we have some middle rank officials from India on deputation here in a trilateral agreement in cooperation with UNDP. 

Unlike consultants who are placed by other foreign governments in ministries, here we have made clear that our personnel are strictly there as mentors and guides and for developing training modules for maximising the output of Afghan pubic servants. This has been a great success because there is a demand for more such mentors and guides to be brought from India.

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